Deodar and hills
My First Pilgrimage to Deo Sari
by David Chance
The draft of an Easter morn, 30 March 1997

New to the Company School, as Woodstock was known to those who believed India was still ruled by the East India Company, I was anxious to get out into the lovely Tehri Garhwal mountains beyond the confines of dorm and classroom. Gil, my enthusiastic friend of several weeks, and his close friend Hugh, invited me and my friend new from Assam, (David) Sorley, to join their BS icontroop of scouts. We found their meeting place in an old gymnasium in the part of the school that dated from before the Great Mutiny. Most of the boys there seemed to know exactly what they were doing. David Sorley Sorley and I were bewildered, unused to rules and formalities.

I had been in scouts in Darjeeling, where we marched and drilled most of the time. Here there was a still some more interest in the trappings of rank, badges and scarves, no knowledge of parade ground drill, some serious attempts at carving pine bark, and more appealing instruction in the natural history of birds and ferns. Uniforms were contrived from this and that, some boys had none at all. I was among the latter. Try as I might, there was no hope of my passing the examinations into the lowest rank of scouting, Tenderfoot. So I decided to take the hiking and nature study as far as possible, and just fake an interest in the rest of it.

The first trip of the year was to be to an oft-mentioned place back within the Himalayas, in the direction of the great snowy ranges that marked, it was said, the boundary of Tibet. Our mystical objective was known as Deo Sari. Everyone pronounced it differently, and everyone who had been there said it was wonderful, though no one said exactly why. Sorley and I went as tent mates. Our packs were old Indian army types with thin canvas straps. To increase their capacity, and weight, we tied blankets, tent halves, clothing, hatchets, and cookpots to the outside with pieces of string and the sleeves of spare shirts. I carried a kettle filled with food on the outside; it dangled far enough to swing back and forth, always pulling the wrong way, ready to upset my balance.

Sorley carried a large metal container or can filled with most of our rice. We placed raw eggs inside the rice to prevent breakage. The can hung on the end of a string, and bashed itself against the bottom of his pack with every step. About fifteen mostly skinny boys set out, under the guidance of the school athletic coach, a tall, handsome, smiling bachelor who had served in the Korean War. He looked a little like Dwight Eisenhower. We never saw his anger, nor did he exhibit sarcasm. He was intent on a good time, caring little for the dubious merit badges and the like, as one would expect from a survivor of a miserable war.

Walking out in a long, steadily lengthening line on the bridle road to the ancient capital of the kingdom of Tehri, we passed several small trading hamlets of a few stone buildings each. The road was easy at first, and the cliffs, mountains and forests unfolded before us in a magnitude possible only in the Himalayas. But pain in shoulders, feet and backs began to interfere with the contemplation of beauty. David and I both wore our Indian police surplus boots that weighed over a pound each and had the flexibility of iron slippers. Their soles were smooth leather that slipped on any surface, wet or dry. They had but one virtue: they made noise, so that people looked up in alarm, expecting to see policemen approaching.

Four or five miles out, the narrow road ran above a long steep slope down to wheat fields that were so steep that standing on them seemed an impossibility. Rhesus monkeys were in the young wheat, eating it. Some of the bad boys in our gang threw rocks down at them. I was one of them. Then a fellow named Philip McEldowney McEldowney began rolling large rocks that bounded down for a thousand feet or more. He always shouted a warning down the mountain each time, "Boldi-atta," he yelled. It seemed like an amalgam of English and Hindi and was part of the lingo of Landour, something that must have reached back to the 1850's, or even before, to the first settlement by Europeans around 1818. Rolling the big rocks was exhilarating, a boy could unleash the power of an artillery shell, and we thought the yells and hand waving of the men on the bridle track below were terribly funny. That was because we were boys, and so thoughtless that no one can explain why the Garhwalis treated us with so much kindness.

At the larger whitewashed hamlet of tea stalls and stables called Siukoli we reached a cross-roads. To the south ran a bridle track all the way to the plains, the very one we had just tried to destroy with rolling rocks. To the north another track dropped steeply into a narrow, forested valley, with occasional villages seated among their terraced fields in the distance. It led down to the Aglar river. Ahead, the road continued on toward ancient Tehri on the Ganges. We took the northern track down into the valley ringed by cool oak, pine and rhododendron forests roamed by leopards, barking deer and wild goats.

At the bottom of the steep grade was the hamlet of Mugru where the government had an experimental orchard. Apple, peach, plum and apricot trees grew on old grain terraces. The villagers in those parts were supposed to emulate this plan. The only problem was that they were expected to give over some of their precious grain terraces to the fruit trees, which they could hardly do without starving. There were open terraces among the pines below the farm where we camped for the night. We had come six miles, which seemed far. The soles of my feet were covered with blisters the size of baby cheeks, and nearly as round. I thought about burning my heavy black boots in the fire, but had nothing else to wear.

The next day was bright--the light of the western Himlayas in the late spring and early summer has a brilliance rarely matched anywhere except in the places like Greece and Algeria. Down the stony bridle track we limped. David and I seemed to be on the back end of the line. Some of the others were far ahead. Rounding a point, we could see far down the valley where McEldowney and others were boldly leading the way, more than a mile in front and hundreds of feet lower down. McEldowney had a stride to match that of the coach, more than a yard in length, a walking machine, I thought.

We passed the occasional mule train struggling up the trail with two hundred pounds apiece of wheat sacks on their backs. The rhythmic jangling of harness bells warned us of their coming. We climbed the upper side of the trail to let them pass, for if caught on the lower side, one risked being shoved over the side by an ornery mule. In those mountains, going over the side often meant a broken neck, or worse.

The melodic line above the rhythm of the mule bells was provided by the brisk flute playing of the muleteer riding in a trance of his own making. Some of the tunes were sad, others spritely. Some were film songs, others sounded like airs from the far distant centuries. It seemed like the mountains were filled with carefree composers who cared for little but beauty and song and warm nights inside the stable. Sometimes women and children trailed behind, nearly always walking, briskly throwing their very full black and red skirts to the fore with their bare feet, with strides equal to any in our troop of mountaineers, but with a motion much more interesting to watch. They might own shoes or sandals, but they did not waste them on the dusty road. It was a lesson I had yet to learn. The women wore flat turbans and bandannas, and pounds of silver jewelry and old coins around their necks, ears, through their noses. Beauty went everywhere, life was not compartmentalized.

The day grew long, and hotter and dustier with each mile as we dropped down to the Aglar valley which was actually a desert with cacti, thorn bushes, and no trees. The fields near the river had to be irrigated. David and I were in much doubt now about ever getting back up into the higher forested elevations. We were too far down, too hot and far too thirsty to be rational any longer. Then suddenly we saw a high, cantilevered Himalayan bridge and the Aglar river rushing beneath it, dropping into a pool. Boys in their underpants or nothing at all were splashing in the clear water in a pool below the bridge. We managed to scramble down to the bank, dump our packs and wade into water more liquid than any I had known.

And when I put my head underwater and opened my eyes, the water was so clear that I could see small fish swimming all around me, small silvery creatures that did not seem to mind smelly boys in their drawers. No longer forced to travel on feet, I began swimming about under the water, free of pain, heat and thirst. My frog-style swimming improved by the minute as I evolved into an aquatic animal that knew nothing but the freedom of mountain streams. Then suddenly, my head was gripped between the big thighs of someone. I struggled and gasped, but he was too heavy to throw. Eventually my captor let me up for a little air. I saw that he was a much larger boy than I, laughing as he splashed water into my face. Then he shoved me under again and held my head down, waiting to see how long I would live. I struggled and fought, then remembered to punch the more tender parts between his legs, which made him let go. This time when I shot into the air like a dolphin he was not laughing.

My antagonist sat down suddenly in the shallows to rub himself, trying not to be noticed. I swam off to the other side of the pool, pulled slowly onto the hot white rocks and lay gasping like a landed fish. This was how I discovered the unbounded delights of crawling out of a cool Garhwal stream onto baking limestone boulders or shingle, to celebrate by repetition that first time we left the waters.

I went back to swimming in the sparkling pool with the boys and the fish, until it was time to get out and resume our trek toward the mythical Deo Sari. I was no longer too interested in getting there because the country had deteriorated so much desert. We struggled into our packs which once again flopped this way and that, unbalanced and too heavy. My shoulders were raw from the straps. Sorley's face was red from the heat, and after a few hundred yards on the baking trail he looked ready to die. The swim had only made us more thirsty, that is those of us who had abstained from drinking the Aglar. I was an abstainer, except when forced. So was Sorley. We were soon alone again, the enthusiasts making dust far ahead.

The trail now threaded between man-made walls of rock, and it overlooked rice terraces below that were watered by a roaring cascade we could seldom see. Across the gorge we followed was a cliff that ran for miles of reddish rock, as if baked to that color by the sun. Cacti hung on the ledges, and tired-looking kites and vultures circled near the sun, looking for dead cattle. We gradually gained altitude and soon had finished the drops left in our canteens, unreplenished for hours. Sorley was limping. I was glad for an excuse to stay back with him, for I was limping even more. After awhile we realized there had been no sign of our friends for at least an hour. But time could no longer be measured, reality consisted of the hated sun, thirst, lame feet, fatigue and now a new thing, a fear that we had been abandoned, that perhaps our friends, or former friends, had gone off on one of the forks in the trail.

Sorley said he could not go on. I suggested he stop in the shade of a thorn tree while I went ahead to find where we were. I limped on, helped by a stick. A panic began to constrict my throat. Then I met an old woman, and asked her in Hindi where the boys of the Company School had gone. She shrugged and squinted at me in the penetrating squinting look favored by Garhwali women. She did not seem to understand. I pointed up the trail and asked again. She jabbered back in Pahari, pointing both up and down the trail, then across at the hot cliffs. Then she smiled with all her teeth showing and walked on down the trail, glancing back several times with a laugh.

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I decided to keep on, now forcing myself to go faster in hopes of catching up with someone. I rounded a ridge and saw one of our number resting his pack against a wall studying the birds on the wing. It was a glad sight. I explained our lack of water, and asked if this were the right road. He cooly replied that of course it was the right road or why would he be there, but that he had very little water left. I asked him to wait there while I went back to get Sorley. He was uncertain whether he could wait that long. I went back and met my friend plodding up the trail, the can of rice still banging against his legs. He was glad to know we were not lost, but not eager to go on. I said we had no choice but to keep moving, otherwise we would die of thirst. He said he would like to die.

We came to where our fellow scout was still waiting. He looked at us with a detachment that I was willing to overlook. He was, however, persuaded to part with a few drops of water, if warm. Sorley was restored enough to go on. Our friend moved off to continue enjoying his leisurely walk, probably glad to leave us struggling behind him. The misery lasted for just another mile or so, until we rounded another ridge and saw the wide lower terraces of a fine village with prosperous-looking two-storey houses with carved pillars and beams in dark wood. Along the terrace edges were tall and luxuriant apricot trees, and they drooped from the weight of ripe apricots. Village boys were stripping a tree next to the track, throwing them down to girls and tiny children who ran about filling conical baskets.

We stopped with these busy children in that gentle green shade, and the boys rained apricots down all around. They grinned as we split them with our fingers and popped the halves into our dry mouths. They were, we suddenly knew, the tastiest variety of this fruit ever discovered. We ate until our stomachs began to distend with sweet acid. Sorley looked almost happy now, and I was beginning to think we should pitch camp among the apricot trees. Perhaps we were at the edge of some paradise, a new type, undescribed in our upbringing.

But it was necessary to push on and say farewell to our generous friends. People would come looking for us if we stayed too long. Within a half mile we turned north into a valley with a dark forest of towering deodars of immense girths, the sacred trees of the western Himalayas. And worthy of worship. We came to a clear cascade with yellow raspberry canes along its banks. Across the stream another large, rich village of whitewashed stone houses lay baking under slate roofs. A few more steps brought us into the camp on a shady terrace overlooking the creek. Campfires were lighted. Some boys were down in the water making dams. The coach sat cross-legged by a fire, grinning at us as we staggered up. This was Deo Sari, the home of a petty rajah, and the place of an ancient snake temple behind the village, a place of pilgrimage for some, a stopping place for pilgrims headed for the sources of the Ganges and the Jamuna. High in the air to the west the dark forests rose under the peak of Nag Tiba, named for the sacred snake that had something to do with the village temple.

My partner and I stretched our little pup tent with sticks and rocks and set to work on supper. We opened the can of rice and discovered that all of the eggs within were broken. So we spilled it all out on a flagstone and picked out the shells. There had been some butter or margarine in there too, and possibly some spice wrapped in paper, we could not remember everything that had been put in with the rice. That was too bad, because after cooking the mess and then frying it with onions, we discovered we had the most exquisite fried rice ever tasted, a dish fit for a moghul and his begum. For several years thereafter Sorley and I tried to duplicate the discovery, but never with any success. The reason slowly became clear: a can of rice and eggs, and a few other things, had to bang on the backs of a staggering boy's legs in the hot sun for two days, and then be cooked in the fragrant smoke of deodar limbs to produce the dish we had feasted upon.

After our well-earned reward we crawled into army blankets for the sleep of the near-dead. The next day, some of boys went for a hike up the mountain above the village, but I was too sore to walk any distance. So Sorley and I and one or two others turned into the deodar woods, to see how far they extended up the mountainside to the east. A stream descended through the forest, foaming from one pool to another. I drank the water fearlessly.

Deodar trees The great deodar cedars, close kin to the Atlas and Lebanon cedars, were growing on old agricultural terraces, a mystery. Along the stream the moss was deep and moist, fragrant balm for wounded feet no longer imprisoned inside the police boots . Here and there were the droppings of the gentle barking deer that hid in the thickets of viburnum, but whose bark, more like a drawn out roar, could carry for more than a mile in the early morning. Leaving my friends, I walked on and up, from one ancient stairstep to another, but could not find the upper limit of this enchanted forest. So I lay in the moss and looked into the water and believed that this was as close to paradise as one could ever be.

That night, a couple of friendly men came out of the dark to the main fire, bringing a leg of a barking deer slain earlier in the evening by the Rajah of Deo Sari. One of the men may have been the rajah; like so many things, it was unclear, more a matter of rumor. Most of the meat had been cut off already. The coach stripped off most of the remaining chunks, and then threw the leg on the fire to roast the few threads and knots of meat still adhering. The leg was then passed from from one greasy, smudge-faced boy to another for the greedy gnawing of charred bits, for the delicate flesh of the small barking deer is formed from tender Himalayan forbs and berries chewed in tranquility. The leg retained its shape for the rest of the evening, for no one wanted to dismember it, and the full limb with hair and tiny black hoof at its tip proved the closeness of pleasure with death.

It was soon time to go back to school. But the return to Landour is lost to memory. I sometimes wondered about this until I learned about the malady of soul-loss. That is probably what happened in that ancient deodar forest of Deo Sari. It may be time to go back there and look. But if I see it running through the trees, I will let it go.[From David C.]

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